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Boundaries at Work: How to help a co-worker solve their own problem without letting it suck you down.

One of the most maddening professional interactions I’ve seen between two co-workers is when one of them begins to talk about a problem they are having at work.  To imagine what it looks like, just think back to last time you spoke with a colleague about a problem you were facing at work – a task where you got stuck, a client who was proving difficult, a mistake you needed to fix. In that moment, did your colleague unhelpfully:

  • Suggest obvious solutions that you had actually already tried?
  • Tell you what you ’ought’ to do, before even knowing all of the pertinent facts?
  • Turn the conversation to their (often unrelated) problem?
  • Minimize or try to deny that your problem, was in fact, a real or serious problem?

We’ve all been guilty of being ‘that unhelpful coworker’ at one time or another. My sense is that when we behave this way, we incorrectly assume we are being helpful, and that our coworker will be grateful that we solved their problem, or helped them not ‘blow the problem out of proportion’.  That said, some professionals I spoken with about this topic did acknowledge that they sometimes minimized or tried to quickly resolve their coworker’s problem just to get the person out of their doorway. It’s understandable – who wants to get stuck listening to another person’s frustrations when we have our own work to do? If we don’t know how to respond skillfully when a colleague starts to talk about a problem at work, we can start to feel trapped. The moment that happens, our goal shifts from trying to be helpful, to just trying to get them out the door. So, how do you offer useful support to a colleague while avoiding getting entangled in their problem?  These six things can help:

  1. Change your thinking: Your coworker can handle this
  2. Reframe your role: At best you’re only part of the comprehensive solution
  3. Ask what would help and only offer advice or help if explicitly asked
  4. Ask useful questions
  5. Express confidence in their ability, and
  6. Put a time limit on it

1. Change your thinking: Your coworker can handle this.
First, stop mentally selling your colleagues short. Start with the assumption that the person talking to you is creative, resilient and able to solve whatever problem they just presented. Doing so will stop the first mistake from happening: thinking you have to solve their problem.  The mistake they made may be significant, the client exceptionally difficult, or the solution not obvious to you or them. They may appear stressed, angry, confused or even whiny. But whatever the issue is, every single one of your coworkers has had to employ hundreds of successful problem-solving strategies to countless complex challenges throughout their lives to make it to adulthood – so begin by remembering that they probably can handle the problem before them without your advice or help.

2.  Reframe your role: At best, you’re probably only part of the comprehensive solution. 
The tricky thing about problems is it’s rare that any one person can resolve a complicated situation in one conversation. The fact is that complex problem solving is often a process that unfolds over time. Therefore, it isn’t your individual job to actually to fix your coworker’s problem by the end of the conversation.  It also isn’t your responsibility to listen to your coworker’s 30-minute rant while your own work is left undone. You’re neither the savior nor the therapist in your colleague’s unfolding situation. You are the colleague, and if you choose to be collegial and offer help in any way, it helps to remember that collegiality is limited to a very specific role. In addition to believing in your coworker’s ability to solve their own problem, your role is often just helping to shed light on your coworker’s thinking so they can move forward in their own problem-solving process. So there’s no need to jump in with suggestions or call in favors. Instead….

3. Ask your colleague what would help, and only offer advice or help if explicitly asked.
It may not be clear to you what your coworker’s intentions are in telling yours about their problem. But helping someone solve a problem is a skill and a gift, not to be given away lightly. Providing anything you regard as helpful, unsolicited, just because a colleague is blocking your doorway or standing by your work area often just results in feeling as if you are being taken for granted. On the other hand, when a coworker directly asks for help, they are acknowledging that they are taking up our time, our energy and our expertise. Rather than diving in with ‘help’,  explicitly ask your colleague, “What would help you now?” because the answer might not have anything to do with you. If their response is, “I don’t know.” then you can specifically ask, “Would it help if asked some open-ended questions to help you think through your situation, or told you what worked for me?” Because if your colleague says no, you can make the decision if you are able or willing to offer what’s probably the only thing left on the table – a listening ear.

I once worked for a boss who usually signaled his need by beginning the conversation by actually saying, “This is a vent, not a fix”, so I knew I wasn’t expected to transition into brainstorming mode. These days, when a colleague starts telling me about a work problem, I also find it useful to ask if it’s a “vent or a fix”, when it’s unclear. Regardless of their answer, my response can be a balance between being supportive and maintaining boundaries. I can say, “I’ve got 15 minutes” or “I want to hear this, but I need to prep for a 12:00 pm meeting. Can we connect from 12-12:30pm?”  This type of response prevents me from feeling torn about finishing my own work and helping colleagues who have also helped me in the past.

4. Ask useful questions that forwards your coworker’s thinking.
If you do nothing else, resist the incredible urge to start by asking your colleague if they did/considered X. Whatever the X is, it was probably the first thing they thought of, and it did not work. You almost can’t win if you start with a suggestion. If they did try it, their response to you will be some defensive variation of, “Of course I did! Do you think I’m stupid?” If they didn’t, they will probably defensively explain why your solution isn’t a good one.  Instead, ask them questions to help them think through the problem again:

Start by asking them what they’ve already tried to solve the problem. Ask them to recap the strategies they’ve already employed to solve the problem; the “Can you summarize what you’ve tried to do so far?” approach. This helps because when your coworker is stuck, it’s important to get them thinking through their process again, retracing their steps, reviewing their reasoning and questioning their assumptions. Vocalizing their thinking also helps – giving them the ability to hear themselves is a different lens to just chewing on it in your head.  But remember to specifically ask for a ‘summary’, it’s the only way to side what often feels the most draining aspect when people share their problems: listening to a coworker tell a long, involved story chronologically, mentioning every action, blow by blow, rather than focusing on key points.

Ask if there are any other factors that are making the problem difficult to solve. Few of us are fully conscious of the internal and external pressures that limit our ability to effectively solve our problems. I once worked with a client who was struggling with negotiating her compensation package with a new employer. She had mentioned work flexibility along with a few other points when developing her list of requirements to accept the job. But when we practiced nailing down how she was going to talk about her expectations and needs, she kept stumbling over the language when asking for a flexible work schedule, speeding up her pace and rushing through the ask. At some point, we stopped because I asked her why she thought she was having trouble on this point. She acknowledged that part of the problem was that her partner wasn’t 100% on board with her decision to take the job, because it would put them in a long distance relationship for a while. What was worse was her belief that she would be perceived negatively by the employer and her future colleagues if she was asked to work from home on Fridays or Mondays.

Uncovering those underlying issues helped her move forward on the issue she presented – practicing language to negotiate her compensation package. What questions can you ask when a colleague starts talking about a problem? Great questions include: “Why are you so nervous on this point?”, “What do you think will happen?”, “How do you think X will respond?”, “What’s the impact of this situation on Y?” and “What’s the worst case scenario for you?”  It may feel as if you’re opening a can of worms asking these questions, but by allowing space for them rather than studiously avoiding a person’s worst case scenario could help your coworker identify and address those underlying issues that further complicate the problem.

Ask them if anyone else in their professional community could give them advice or support in solving the problem. It’s useful to remind people that they have allies, as there are few problems unfamiliar or unsolved within the collective of people who make up our personal and professional networks. In fact, our larger professional networks are made for situations like problems at work. Encouraging your coworkers to send out a quick email to a 1-5 people in their community is a great way to get a range of advice to further shape their thinking and solve the issue. It has the added benefit of strengthening those professional relationships.

5. Express confidence in their ability.
When professionals discuss their worst work challenges, I often hear the same expressions of annoyance, exasperation, anger, shock, derision, bewilderment, guilt or self-blame. But I’m often struck by the common underlying thought or feeling that often isn’t expressed: a concern that they won’t be able to handle the problem. It’s human nature, I think: when we stumble, we may momentary lose our confidence, and while we don’t say it – the fact is that more than any pat solution, we just want to know that some else believes we can address and overcome the problem we face. Here are some thoughtful ways I’ve seen colleagues do just that:

-Ask your coworker if this is the first time that they have faced a problem of this nature, scope of magnitude. Sometimes people just need to be reminded that they have a track record of successfully solving problems, and consider if any previous approaches might also be effective in their current situation. Jogging people’s memory of previous successes might also give a much-needed confidence boost.

-Acknowledge that the process they employed so far was reasonable, and that they did some things right. What’s hard about a getting stuck is that we tend to also second guess our decisions, our process, and our judgement in general. It is helpful to hear that others would have made similar choices at key decision points.

-Say the words, “You can do it”.  In short, directly express confidence. It may feel corny, but research suggests that our sense of confidence boosts our ability to do complicated things. Positive reinforcement increases our confidence. It doesn’t have to be complicated: “Obi-Wan, I can see why taking finishing this project has been difficult. It’s a complex situation, but if anyone can figure this out, it’s you. Let me know if there is some way I can help”.  Other variations: “If anyone can figure it out, it’s you. Keep me updated. It would be great to know how it turns out.”, “You’re right, this was an avoidable situation. But I also know you can handle it.”, or “You can do this. Let me know if I can help.”

6. Put a time limit on it.
When a colleague starts to tell you about their issue, consider mentally setting a time limit on how long you will listen – and then verbalize it. When in the thick of recounting a problem, a coworker can easily lose track of time. If there is a boundary to be set, you will need to take on the responsibility of establishing and maintaining it. As noted earlier, when a coworker introduces a problem to the conversation, you can signal your availability. For example, “This sounds complicated – I’ve got about 10 minutes. What happened?” Within those ten minutes, you can see them as capable agents able to solve their own problems, and unless explicitly asked for help, you can refrain from offering advice, and instead acknowledge the problem, recognize their effort, and express confidence in their ability. At the end of those ten minutes, a resolution is unlikely,  but there may be progress, which is a definitely a success.

What if you need to bring the conversation to a close, even if your co-worker shows no sign of wrapping up? Interrupt or wait for a break and signal the end of the conversation by acknowledging and expressing confidence in their ability: “Leia, I know you didn’t get a chance to share the whole story, but can see this is a complicated issue. I think if anyone can solve it, it’s you. Let me know if I can help.” or “Han, it’s been twenty minutes and I’ve got to get back to work, but let me know how it turns out. It sounds like a challenge.”  Knowing how to end a conversation and protect your work time allows you to be present for the time you are available.

At the end of the day, a great deal of our jobs is about solving problems, and when we work on teams we’re going to regularly see our colleagues hit roadblocks in resolving theirs. The more ambitious the challenges, the more complex and intractable the problems may seem. It is unlikely that all of your colleagues will be as skillful as even they would like when facing their challenges. But rather than wishing that your colleague wouldn’t have problems or bother you with them, it’s more realistic to understand what it means to help a coworker overcome those challenges without getting dragged down yourself.

photo credit: lynn.gardner via photopin cc